Will it adapt to changing attitudes?

Executive Summary

The $70.3 billion industry for diet products and plans is experiencing a shakeout as consumer perceptions shift. The industry still fills a need, since about 70 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to government data. But attitudes about how to control weight are changing, as many dieters bounce from one plan to another without finding satisfaction. Many give up on dieting altogether in favor of a broader approach that emphasizes eating a wider variety of foods, exercising and seeking to sustain a healthy lifestyle. In addition, new competitors are entering the field to challenge the traditional industry leaders, but the established firms are finding ways to survive in the changing climate.

Key takeaways include:

  • The year 2017 was a period of recovery for the industry after several down years for major players such as Weight Watchers.

  • One well-established company, Nutrisystem, has been especially successful in adapting to a changing business environment by seeking partnerships with major retailers.

  • Fitness apps and trackers, once seen as a potential industry disrupter, have had a mixed record, in part because owners often stop using them after a few months.

  • Click hear to listen to an interview with author Lisa Rabasca Roepe.

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Resources for Further Study



Agatston, Arthur, “The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss,” Rodale, 2003. A cardiologist outlines a diet that includes meat, poultry and fish, as well as eggs, cheese and vegetables, but eliminates white flour, white sugar and baked potatoes.

Atkins, Robert C., “Doctor Atkins’ Diet Revolution,” Bantam, 1981. A medical doctor lays out a low-carbohydrate approach to losing weight.

Cordain, Loren, “The Paleo Diet Revised Edition: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. A professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University outlines how eating like our ancestors ate 10,000 years ago – lean meats and fish, fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables – will promote weight loss.

Foxcroft, Louise, “Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2,000 Years,” Profile Books, 2013. A historian and journalist writes about consumers’ complicated relationship with food, fashion and fads of body shape, and how cultural beliefs and social norms have changed over time.

Lindstrom, Simeon, “Mindful Eating: A Healthy, Balanced and Compassionate Way to Stop Overeating, How to Lose Weight and Get a Real Taste of Life by Eating Mindfully,” Amazon Digital Services, 2014. A life coach and health counselor explores the reasons people overeat and how they can become in tune with their appetite.


Aubrey, Allison, “Is Dieting Passe? Study Finds Fewer Overweight People Try To Lose Weight,” NPR, March 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/yanb5x7v. A writer examines why an increasing number of overweight Americans have lost the motivation to diet.

Chen, Angus, “Diet Foods Are Tanking. So The Diet Industry Is Now Selling ‘Health,’” NPR, Jan. 20, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/ybmncxd6. A journalist looks at how sales of diet food products have dropped in recent years because of consumer disillusionment with their effectiveness.

Kolata, Gina, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Retain Weight,” The New York Times, May 2, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hwztkpa. A science and medical reporter explores why contestants on the television show “The Biggest Loser” fail to keep off the weight they lose.

Lynch, Rene, “A brief timeline shows how we’re gluttons for diet fads,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 28, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/y82eo6bm. A writer offers a timeline of diets from the 1830s to the present.

Reports and Studies

“US Diet Trends Market Report,” Mintel, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/yamdwe2q. This annual report by a market intelligence agency looks at the market for diet products and services and finds that many consumers are rejecting the term “diet.”

“The U.S. Weight Loss Market in 2018 – Forecasts,” Marketdata, Dec. 6, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ydxku2ly. A market research firm examines the weight loss industry and concludes that commercial chains such as Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig are well-positioned to increase sales in 2018.

The Next Step

Body Positivity

“What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Body Positivity,” Health.com, Nov. 9, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yc65s7wt. Although the goal of body positivity is to redefine the norm for beauty standards, the movement still perpetuates objectifying women, says the cofounder of a body positivity nonprofit group.

Dastagir, Alia E., “Body positivity is everywhere, but is it for everyone?” USA Today, Aug. 2, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb75j8ra. Five body positivity activists offer their take on the movement and give advice on how to keep the core message – inclusivity of all bodies – from getting lost.

Feldman, Jamie, “Honestly, The Term ‘Body Positive’ Lost Its Meaning A Long Time Ago,” HuffPost, Nov. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9l474hp. The term “body positive” has lost its impact as more fashion brands and companies embrace the trend, sometimes creating suspicions that they do so as marketing ploys to increase profits, argues a fashion and lifestyle editor.

Wearable Devices

Gonzalez, Robbie, “Science Says Fitness Trackers Don’t Work. Wear One Anyway,” Wired, Dec. 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9ntffyb. Most studies on the effectiveness of wearable fitness devices are outdated or poorly designed, and several products have been significantly improved, says a Wired writer.

Lamkin, Paul, “Smartwatch Popularity Booms With Fitness Trackers On The Slide,” Forbes, Feb. 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yasheno3. Smartwatches, particularly Apple’s version, have outpaced fitness trackers in 2017 and are expected to continue outselling them in 2018, according to data from an industry analysis company.

Sly, Liz, “Military reviews rules on wearable tech amid fitness tracker concerns,” Boston Globe, Jan. 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya6og75j. A fitness-tracking company unwittingly revealed highly sensitive military information, including the location of bases and patrol and convoy routes, from collected user data. The U.S. military has had to reexamine its policies on all wireless and technological devices used in military facilities as a result.


Euromonitor International
60-61 Britton St., London EC1M 5UX, United Kingdom
+44 (0)20 7251 8024
An international market research company that has examined the soft drink industry.

Jenny Craig
5770 Fleet St., Carlsbad, CA 92008-9446
A weight loss program designed to provide structure and support to help members lose weight and learn how to keep it off.

Marketdata LLC
7210 Wareham Drive, Tampa, FL 33647
An independent market research firm that has tracked the U.S. weight loss industry since 1989.

Mintel Group Ltd.
11 Pilgrim St., London, UK EC4V 6RN
+44 (0) 20 7606 4533
A privately owned market research firm that issues reports on the food and drink industry.

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
PO Box 4662. Foster City, CA 94404-0662
A nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights and improving the quality of life of fat people.

600 Office Center Drive, Fort Washington, PA 19034
A home-delivery weight loss program.

Weight Watchers
11 Madison Ave., Floor 17, New York, NY 10010-3661
A weight loss program that features weekly meetings and weigh-ins.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680408.n1